The Block Island Times

As construction suffers, looking ahead at island 'buildout'

By Judy Tierney | Dec 29, 2012
Photo by: Kari Curtis

Construction and renovation work on Block Island took a tumble during the recession, as it did across most of the United States. By the end of November this year, the town's Building Department had pulled in just less than $29,000 in fees, a 28 percent tumble from the equivalent time period last year, when construction activity brought in $40,300 in fees.

This has been a cold, hard economic reality for many people who live on Block Island. According to the 2010 United States census figures, construction workers comprised 15.8 percent of the island’s year-round work force, an estimated 87 people — the second highest category of employment on the island.

What possibilities lie ahead for this important segment of the island's workforce when the recession ends?

Planner Jane Weidman and Martha Roldane, the town’s GIS mapper, got together to help the Times figure out how many housing lots are still available before the island faces full “buildout” — when each buildable lot will have a home on it, and there's nowhere for new construction to go.

The final number is approximately 240 more housing units under current zoning laws, which would give Block Island a total of 2,048 housing units. At this time there are 1,808, with 514 considered year-round units.

With the data Weidman sent was this note: “While the overall degree of accuracy is relatively high, the actual development potential of any individual lot, as listed, cannot be accurately verified without a detailed look at all factors including access, actual developable land and configuration. Wetlands were accounted for (subtracted from lot area) by ‘eyeballing’ the aerial maps. Lots of record, even though non-conforming, were given the benefit of the doubt even though some undersized ones may never be developed… The accounting also does not include potential housing units that could occur under the various possibilities in the zoning ordinance for density increases — it is a fairly straightforward calculation under conventional zoning.”

In short, Weidman cautions that the numbers should be used for planning purposes only.

Density increases are right now under consideration for non-profit affordable housing projects, and will be addressed in a joint meeting of the Town Council and the Housing Board in January. That could bring the number up slightly higher.

Construction permit applications here indicate the recession is easing, at least for additions and upgrades, including plumbing and electrical work on existing housing units. In January, 2012, they were up 27 percent over the previous year, continuing an uptick from a five-year low in 2009.

Building on Block Island peaked in 2007 when 20 single family affordable/attainable homes were built in addition to a number of vacation homes.

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